Step II is expected to begin this week in a three-step approach in resuming the Six Party Talks that broke down in December 2008.
Upon U.S. invitation, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan is expected to land in New York later this week for preliminary talks with a US inter-agency team. Kim, Pyongyang’s former chief nuclear negotiator to the Six Party Talks, orchestrates the North’s nuclear negotiations.
The meeting would come on the heels of Step I held last week between the two Koreas on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, and would be the first time in over a year (1 year and 7 months to be exact) since Washington and Pyongyang met directly, face-to-face.
Seoul and Washington officials are maintaining a cautious stance, and are rightly still suspicious of whether Pyongyang truly intends to surrender its nuclear arsenal.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement, “We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take. And we have no appetite for pursuing protracted negotiations that will only lead us right back to where we have already been.” (Click ‘Read More.’)
The fact that US-North Korea talks will likely take place after a long pause is significant in it of itself. It may even be considered as a reciprocal visit by the North following US Special Envoy on North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth’s Pyongyang trip in December 2009.
1. Official dialogue between the US and North Korea is finally beginning.
2. Pyongyang has accepted Washington’s message that if North Korea wants to talk, it must first go through Seoul before sitting down with Washington.
3. Washington’s “strategic patience” is now shifting toward “direct engagement” preparations – that perhaps Washington and Seoul recognize the need for talks in the wake of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program disclosure as well as to prevent future provocations.
4. The three-step approach in resuming the Six Party Talks may be beginning to work although it is too early to raise hopes since a tough road lies ahead until the actual resumption of multilateral negotiations.
The resumption of the Six Party Talks and North Korea’s uranium enrichment program are expected to top the agenda in New York. This could include demands for Pyongyang to re-invite IAEA inspectors, to declare a moratorium on its nuclear facilities and missile tests, and to improve relations with Seoul.
The hot topic for North Korea could be US food aid on which Washington has held off a decision since a World Food Programme report in March, and perhaps even a demand to replace the armistice with the a permanent peace mechanism.
The invitation of Kim Kye-gwan is not quite a new card. There had been movement for a possible US visit last year following Ambassador Bosworth’s Pyongyang trip, but was disrupted by the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan corvette and later by continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Exploratory and trust-building meetings are valuable and needed, but the tough part has yet to come that will decide the fate of the Six Party Talks. Some key challenges are:
Sincerity to Denuclearize. The biggest question is whether Pyongyang is, in fact, willing to take concrete steps to roll back its nuclear programs. The conventional wisdom is that it is not, because nuclear weapons are the crux of the regime’s survival.
Conditions and Sequencing. In Bali, North Korean Foreign Minister Park Ui-chun reiterated that the Six Party Talks must convene without preconditions.
However, Seoul and Washington maintain that a sincere gesture by Pyongyang is needed prior to six-way negotiations. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said in Hong Kong that “we have very clear pre-steps related to nuclear issues, related to proliferation concerns, and we will need to see clearly articulated by the North Koreans if we are to go forward.” This apparently means that the allies may not be in a rush to gather in Beijing for the long-stalled Six Party Talks.
Some examples of a “sincere gesture” would be for to Pyongyang to shut down all nuclear programs, including its uranium enrichment program, and allow IAEA inspectors back into the North.
It remains to be seen whether such outstanding issues will be dealt with simultaneously at the Six Party Talks, which is Beijing’s preference, or prior to the Six Party Talks, which is desired by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.
Highly Enriched Uranium Verification. Compared to plutonium, it is much harder, if not impossible, to technically verify the North’s highly enriched uranium. North Korea disclosed a pilot enrichment facility to an American scientist last November, but the real plants used for nuclear weapons are hidden in clandestine locations Pyongyang will likely never reveal.
More Provocations. History has shown that Pyongyang refrains from provocations when it is engaged in dialogue. However, that same history has also shown that when Pyongyang does not get what it wants during those discussions, it will still unleash provocations and put an end to dialogue since provocations are an integral part of North Korean tactics.
Pyongyang is already reportedly gearing up for a large-scale joint drill by its army, navy and air force. South Korean media reports say the drill is expected around July 27th, the anniversary of the armistice. The last time the three forces conducted a joint exercise was in January 2010, three months before sinking South Korea’s Cheonan although Pyongyang denies involvement.
The regime is preparing to open the doors in becoming a “strong and prosperous nation” in 2012 as it celebrates the centennial of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birth. It is also gearing up to convince the world that it is a nuclear power. This means that even if it is not a direct provocation against the South, it is still possible for Pyongyang to fire its missiles, or perhaps even conduct a third nuclear test, while it is engaged in talks.
Time. The complexity of the issues on the table will require time to untangle before sitting down at the six-way bargaining table. It will also take time to lay the groundwork on substance ahead of a six-nation meeting, and time to coordinate diplomatic schedules among the six parties to set a meeting date in Beijing. Even after the Six Party Talks resume, it will take time to negotiate all outstanding issues before inking an agreement. All this while key players prepare for major changes in 2012 – the US and South Korea will enter into presidential campaign mode, China will prepare for leadership transition and Japan will deal with its own potential change of leadership.
Seoul and Washington have raised expectations for a substantive Six Party breakthrough as senior officials have repeatedly said they will not meet to “talk for talk’s sake” with North Korea. It remains to be seen whether the latest series of preliminary discussions will translate into future substantive steps or end in mere talk.
As the clock continues to tick, the ball is undeniably in North Korea’s court.